A Family Tradition

"A Family Tradition," by Elizabeth Barone

I wish there was a way to photograph those moments in life where you truly feel alive, perfect. Capture that feeling, forever preserved. There’s no way to actually save a memory, so I try to remember. I tell myself I’m going to write it down, and then I forget.

There’s a ducky bowl that’s been banging around since I was little. It’s a bit faded at this point, but otherwise in decent condition. When I was a kid, it was the coveted cereal bowl in the house.

I will fight to the death for this. It's a family tradition. 🥄

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I liked it because when you finished the cereal, the ducky “swam” in the remaining milk. My dad liked it because it was bigger than the other bowls, and the man loves his cereal fixes.

We fought over it, a lighthearted war. It became a race—who would get the clean ducky bowl first. For years this went on, victory cries ringing through the house every time one of us claimed it: “My ducky bowl!”

It became a running joke that, at some point, became a ritual. Ducky bowl was serious business. It traveled with us from apartment to apartment, finally ending up at my grandparents’ when we moved in during my senior year of high school. I poured snacks into it while I wrote my first novel, while I worked on homework during college, while I wrote code for clients’ websites—if Dad didn’t get to it first.

I kept threatening to take it with me when I moved out into my own place. Dad kept threatening to hide it.

I introduced my husband to it like he was meeting family: “This is ducky bowl.” When we got married and began packing to move into our first apartment, I grabbed ducky bowl from the rack of clean dishes and wrapped it in newspaper before Dad could see.

I smuggled ducky bowl out of my parents’ place like a thief.

During that first Christmas after or some other holiday, I confessed my crime to Dad. He feigned wounded outrage, and I tried to make it up to him. “You can have it on weekends,” I offered.

“You can keep it,” he told me, as if passing on a family heirloom.

For the first time in two decades—maybe longer—I had ducky bowl all to myself. Even though I bought a set of dishes with bowls twice as deep, it was still my favorite. I happily munched cereal, marveling at how the thing had managed to stick around. Some things I lose, others hover about me like ghosts.

And then Mike stole it.

“No!” I protested, reaching out for it as Mike poured cereal into it or ate cheesecake out of it. At first I thought he was just messing with me. Slowly I realized I was wrong.

I had a rival.

Again.

The race began anew: secret washing of dishes, stacking it beneath the other bowls in the rack so he wouldn’t see it; playful shock when he got to it first; considering hiding it in an unlikely place. It was these moments that I most missed my dad. (He’s still alive, don’t worry.) I missed the game, the shared running joke. All children grow up and out of their parents’ homes, but I think some small part of us stays behind.

Tonight I caught Mike reaching for ducky bowl in the rack.

“Damn it,” I muttered, feigning offense. I reached for it.

Mike grabbed a spoon. Gently he tapped me on the forehead with it. “Back, demon.”

I gaped at him in mock outrage. My grip tightened.

He tapped me again. “Banish your evil.”

“Unhand it or I’ll bite you.” I leaned down, jaw open, white teeth flashing.

“Banish your evil!” He bopped me on my topknot.

My teeth neared, Mike fending me off with the spoon, my eyes filling with tears of mirth, jaw straining from laughing while pretending to bite. Just as I grazed flesh, he released it, bringing his hand to safety.

“My ducky bowl,” I told him.

He reached for another bowl.

“Here.” I sighed and held out ducky bowl. “You can use it.” For now, I added silently.

Looking at the proffered bowl, he shook his head at me. “Demon.”

I will fight to the death for ducky bowl. It’s a family tradition.

Three Years, Three Little Words

Karaoke night. This is the only photo I have of myself with both of my longest, closest friends.

Three years ago today, I was sitting at the desk at my part-time office assistant job, chatting with the 90-something-year-old woman who’d helped build it from the ground up. Mrs. D was an absolute doll—though I can’t say the same for her son’s girlfriend. Anyway, it was a slow day, so Mrs. D and I kept each other company while working on odds and ends. Then I got the text.

“Sean passed away,” Mike wrote.

The world flipped. My mind went as white and cold as snow. No. Then I entered the first stage of grief: denial. This has to be a joke. And it’s not funny.

Sean and I had been friends for 12 years—ever since the day we’d sat together on the bus my freshman year and bonded over our Gameboys. Our friendship was the oldest one I had, one that had changed very little over the years. We were super close, though a little too alike in our short tempers; we often had heated but friendly debates about anything and everything. We’d seen each other through tragedy and milestones: his first painting sold, my first book published, him moving in with Gabi (the love of his life), me marrying Mike (the love of mine).

So when Mike texted me those three little words, I couldn’t believe it.

I wouldn’t.

“Excuse me,” I told Mrs. D. “I need to step outside and make a call.”

“Of course!” She smiled warmly at me, then continued what she was doing at her desk.

I walked out to my car on shaking legs. I hadn’t had a cigarette in two years, but at that moment I needed one. I opened the passenger door and sat down. Then I called Mike.

No answer.

I tried to take long, slow breaths. Why, my brain demanded to know, would Mike text me something like that and then walk away from his phone? It was starting to feel less like a sick joke and more like a horrible misunderstanding. I couldn’t just sit outside forever. So I logged into Facebook.

As I scrolled through my feed, I told myself that I’d see everything was fine. I’d see Sean’s or Gabi’s latest post, and then I could kill Mike for pulling such a nasty prank. Who does that? my brain insisted.

He’s never done anything like that before, though. He may be a goofball but he’s not mean. Never mean.

And then I saw it.

A mutual friend of Sean’s and mine had posted something along the lines of “Just found out an old Kaynor friend passed away.”

No.

No.

No.

Just as the tears started to blur my vision, as I frantically tried to tell myself maybe it was someone else, Mike called.

My poor husband couldn’t talk.

In his shock, he’d managed to fire off those three words and then he’d broken down.

He’d seen it on Facebook, too, but the post had specifically named Sean.

“No,” I sobbed. “We would’ve heard something from Gabs.”

Meanwhile, our lovely, sweet girl was barely keeping it together while she sat with his parents and helped make arrangements. She’d wanted to tell us herself because she didn’t want us to find out via Facebook, but understandably hadn’t had the chance to yet.

It was true.

All of it.

Still, my brain insisted that if I just went to Sean and Gabi’s, I’d see that it was all a joke. Or a mistake. I wouldn’t even be mad that they’d pulled such a mean prank. I’d just give him a big hug.

This was the second stage of my grief: bargaining.

The rest of January passed by in a haze. There were nights at Sean and Gabi’s place. I stopped sleeping, binge-watching Lost instead because we’d long had a debate about it and I guess I needed to put that to bed. There was a wake and a funeral, and two autopsies that gave us no cause of death.

Only a black hole in all of our hearts.

Sean and Gabi, at my wedding (2013).

He was only 28. He had his entire life ahead of him—along with a beautiful, loving girl who he was going to marry. It wasn’t fair. They’d been in our wedding; we were supposed to be in theirs, too, damn it. The four of us were going to start families together, continue our Friday night tradition of games and drinks, and grow old together. I still hadn’t even gotten him to sit down and watch Game of Thrones or Firefly with me—two shows that I knew he’d love but he hadn’t made the time for yet.

He left paintings unfinished and goals unachieved. None of us could grasp that someone so young could just pass away, for no reason at all.

I still can’t, not really.

The gang, before catching the train for NYCC (2011).

It has gotten easier, though—at least, a little. I no longer hope he’ll text me on a Friday morning with “What are you guys doing tonight?” Hanging out with you guys, duh. I still want to text him every once in a while, before I remember. And I always wish I knew what he’d think about certain things, like the new DC and Marvel movies, the LEGO movie we all went to see just weeks after losing him, and the new Coheed album. I know we’d probably debate it, but I’d give whole limbs to be able to argue with him again.

Today makes three years since the day Sean passed away. Much has changed since then. Our group is now scattered across Connecticut, rarely connecting because of our hectic schedules. Mike started painting, beginning with a memorial piece for Gabi. And me… I poured my grief into my stories.

Rather than feeling sad, I now cherish the memories—of which there are so many good ones. Though I’ll always miss him, the grief is no longer debilitating and consuming. I’m not religious, so I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I do know that someday, somehow, we’ll cross paths again.

Because ever since I met Sean in 2002, our paths crossed again and again—even when we weren’t really speaking. I’ve always believed that there are certain people we’re meant to have in our lives—people we instantly connect with because in a sense, we already know each other.

So even though my heart is heavy today, it’s the good memories that make me smile and remind me of how precious the people in our lives are. As they say in Rent, there’s “no day but today” to live our lives and appreciate the people we love.

Happy Birthday, Love

True love, circa 2009
True love, circa 2009

I can still remember the day I met you. Well, okay—I know that’s debatable. You remember meeting years earlier when I still worked at FYE, and while I vaguely remember that day, I don’t remember meeting. Which you will never let me live down. I do, however, remember meeting one summer night at Toys R Us.

We’d both been working there for a couple of months. It was a slow night and we were both scheduled to close. You were still working in Boys and I was in R-Zone. My friend Kristen and I were talking about her breakup with her girlfriend when you came sauntering up to us. You were such a flirt, those blue eyes sparkling with mischief and laughter as you smoothly asked us what we were up to that night.

Since I sort of had plans with a friend, I just shrugged and turned my attention back to Kristen. But she was a year older than me and that much smarter.

“He’s cute,” she said, “and he can buy us alcohol.”

True. I was 17 and had just graduated high school. A whole summer of celebration lay before me. But I’d also just gotten out of a series of bad relationships, and I needed another disaster like I needed another hole in my head. Plus, I was supposed to be hanging out with my friend Steve, even though I hadn’t heard anything definite from him.

“I don’t know,” I told you. So much warmth radiated from you, even back then. I wanted to hang out with you.

You said something like “Well, let me know before we close” and strode back to your department.

Throughout the rest of our shift, Kristen and I debated. We finally decided that we’d go for it. What was the worst that could happen? We’d have a couple beers and relax. There was no commitment.

At the last minute, though, Kristen backed out. She was still really upset about her girlfriend and not exactly in the mood to hang out. I couldn’t blame her, though I was kind of bummed because I’ll be honest: I had a huge crush on her and wanted to wipe away all memories of her ex from her mind. Which I realize was totally contradictory to my overall attitude about dating at the time, but I was a teenager, dude. Even though I’d endured some serious trauma in recent relationships, my hormones were still driving most of my decisions.

Which is exactly why I decided to hang out with you anyway.

We hopped into the backseat of your brother’s car and took off for a friend’s garage. I’d had my share of partying in garages throughout the past couple months—my friend Steve’s friends regularly hung out in their own version of “The Garage”—but this was different. Once outside of work, I couldn’t ignore the magnetic pull I felt toward you. It might sound cheesy, and I know you’ll probably laugh it off, but I knew almost instantly that I was in trouble.

Given time, I was totally going to fall in love with you.

And I didn’t want to.

We drank beers and shots of vodka while sitting on milk crates and just getting to know each other. Your brother and friends were really cool, and you made me laugh. Your sense of humor was completely off the wall at times—but I got you. Half the time, you said things that I’d always been thinking but could never really put into words.

Since I wouldn’t be 18 until the end of summer, I still had a lame-ass curfew. (THANKS MOM.) But instead of making me feel bad about it or begging me to push it a little later, you helped me keep an eye on the time and then drove me home. When we pulled up in front of my house, I thought for sure you were going to kiss me. I was floating on booze and a little curious. What would it be like to date you? Would we have a normal relationship or would it all be a total disaster? Mostly, though, I wanted to know what it’d be like to kiss you.

“So,” you said, letting the engine idle. “Who do you like at work?”

The question caught me off guard. I was expecting a mostly awkward goodnight, maybe a kiss. I hadn’t been expecting that at all. A nervous giggle escaped my lips and I tried to dodge the question. For one, I couldn’t just blurt out that I liked you. I was supposed to be playing hard to get or something. But I was also a little tipsy and wasn’t exactly sure what would come out of my mouth.

There were a lot of hot guys and girls at TRU. I knew I had options, and my plan was to kind of play the field a bit. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to date someone I also worked with, but I wasn’t opposed to having some fun.

So I smiled coyly and said, “I don’t know. A few people.” Then I kissed you on a stubbly cheek and slipped out of the car.

That was the first and last time I’ve been able to control myself around you.

I tell you that I love you all the time, but I still think it’s important to tell you why. Especially on your birthday—a day to celebrate everything you are. I’m always proud to be your wife, because no matter how hard things get, you’re nothing short of amazing.

From your sense of humor to your smile, you are intoxicating. You radiate life, love, and laughter—and I’m not exaggerating. Whenever I’m around you, I instantly relax. Your enthusiasm for everything is contagious; you’ve taught me how to embrace life and live it to the fullest. Your stubbornness is simultaneously your best and worst quality, haha. Because of it you’re both loyal to the people you love and tenacious in pursuing your dreams… and also a fantastic procrastinator when it comes to things like seeing a doctor or trimming your beard.

Love, I cannot tell you enough how grateful I am that you’re on this planet. Your existence has been the best gift I’ve ever received. Your sister tells me all the time that you and I “were written in the stars,” and I have no choice but to believe her. Everything in my life before that first night led me to you, and once I found you, I couldn’t let go even if I wanted to.

If I could, I’d give you the world. I think about that house we talk about sometimes—the one with the barn out back that we’ve converted into your studio. I imagine sitting on our porch drinking coffee, watching our kids play in the yard while I daydream about my current work in progress. You glance out the window at me, a paintbrush resting between your fingers, your hand pausing in midair. Our eyes meet and we both smile at the same time, equally content with the life we’ve built.

That feeling is the gift I want to give you over and over. Even now, when the bills are piling up and our fridge is running low, this is how I feel most of the time. I know things are hard and we both often feel frustrated, but I wouldn’t trade our life together for anything.

I love you forever.

Happy birthday, bearded man.

10 Years Together, 3 Years of Marriage

Singing karaoke at our wedding.
Singing karaoke at our wedding.

Sometimes I marvel that this man is mine—even when he’s driving me absolutely bonkers. Especially then, actually. I look into those soft blue eyes and I feel like I’m living a real-life NA romance. We’ve had plenty of our share of the back-and-forth.

Fire, meet gasoline.

When Mike and I first met*, I’d just started working at Toys R Us and also just exited a series of bad relationships. I was the heroine just looking to have a good time. Or so I thought.

All 6’3″ of him strolled up to me one night at work and asked me what my plans were. I hadn’t heard from my friends about our tentative plans, so I smiled up at him and shrugged. One night of drinking vodka and beer in a friend’s garage quickly turned into seeing each other almost every night for three months straight. I was giggly-drunk when he dropped me off that first night.

“Who do you like at work?” he asked in that low voice.

It was sexy as hell but I still managed to play it cool. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, planting a sweet kiss goodnight on his cheek. “Someone.”

Still, the more time we spent together, the less nonchalant I was able to be. No matter how hard I tried not to, I wanted more of this guy who was a mind-blowing kisser and could kick my ass at Scrabble. He, however, did not appear to want more; brat wouldn’t even hold my hand in public.

As the end of the summer neared, I started to accept that we would not end up boyfriend and girlfriend. Too bad, too, because I could actually see myself dating him—really dating.

Right around my birthday, he called me and asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner. A real date. I was surprised. This was the same guy who’d told me he wasn’t looking for anything serious. Thus he has been confusing me for the last decade: when we’re ordering food at a drive-thru; when he stops painting a piece halfway through and starts another; when he changes the song right when it’s getting good and switches to an entirely different band while driving. But even though he can be extremely indecisive, he’s always been loyal.

That night, when we went out to dinner, he officially asked me to be his girlfriend. That was August 31st, 2006. Five years later, on the same day, he took me out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. I was a nervous wreck; I just knew he was going to propose. I couldn’t decide what to wear or if I’d even say yes.

I mean, marriage? For real?! Getting married was for adults. People who knew how to be in mature, serious relationships. I couldn’t even decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, never mind who I wanted to wake up next to.

After we finished eating, I went to the ladies’ room to pee and collect myself. As I washed my hands, I stared at my reflection. This is it, I told myself. When I go back out there, he’s gonna drop to one knee. Practically shaking, I walked back out to our table.

But all he did was pay our check and tip our waiter. Stunned, I followed him out to the parking lot. I’d been so sure. He’d been acting so weird all night. It was our five-year anniversary.

I exhaled and let it go. At least now I could stop being nervous and just enjoy the night.

We got into the car and headed toward the highway. As we drove into the dark night, we talked about things the way we usually did. Just content boyfriend/girlfriend chitchat. Nothing serious or heavy. We were on I-84 when he glanced over at me.

“So you wanna get married?” he asked. It was our inside joke, our thing. We’d talked about doing it eventually. We always said things like “I like you. I might marry you someday.” It was always casual, no pressure.

I responded automatically: “Of course.”

“Okay,” he said. “We have to go to Britt’s. She has the ring.”

I blinked into the night through the windshield. Slowly, I turned toward him in my seat. “Wait, for real?”

He’s always surprising me.

He once made these crazy good New York strip steaks. I hadn’t even known he could cook—not really, anyway. They were the best steaks I’d ever had, which says a lot because that particular cut isn’t the easiest to cook.

I could count a million things I love about him, but I mostly love his sense of humor, the way he cheers me on with my writing, and how good he is with kids. He doesn’t even blink when I get goofy, and sometimes he even joins in. Even when I burn dinner, he eats it without complaint. (Alien.) He’s been kind, patient, and supportive from the moment my arthritis set in, never making me feel bad and always taking care of me. Through years of setbacks and hardships, he’s never left my side and has always been there for me. I never even had to ask.

Like every real couple, we have our ups and downs. Sometimes I want to choke his beard (and do). Sometimes he needs a break from me and my intense personality. At the end of the day, though, we go to bed with kisses and “I love you”s.

He’s my alpha male hero, always taking the wheel when we have somewhere to go—even if his knee is acting up. We’re both stubborn and have that “my way or the highway” mentality, but he is rarely the one to budge. I’ve met my match.

And he’s still a devastatingly good kisser.

Three years ago today we said “I do,” and I’d do it again.

I love you, bearded man.


*He swears we met years before that at my first job, but I honestly don’t remember meeting him. Which he will never let me live down.